Holy Shit

Mayhem Vocalist Dead Is Brought Back to Life Through a New Collection of His Letters

'Letters from the Dead' offers insight into the real Dead—a homesick Swedish kid obsessed with vampires and best known for his morbid role as the first Norwegian black metal casualty.

by Andrea Bosetti; as told to Andrea Bosetti; translated by Vanes Naldi
09 November 2017, 9:17am

To fans of extreme metal, the name Per "Pelle" Yngve Ohlin – and his stage name, Dead – will surely ring a bell. Born in 1969 in Stockholm, Ohlin moved to Norway in his teens to join pioneering black metal band Mayhem, becoming their frontman and lyricist until his premature departure on April 8, 1991. The young Swede was barely 22 when he decided to blow his head off with a rifle, leaving behind a legacy full of notorious contributions to the music scene, but also a plethora of writings that weren't quite as well known.

Black metal fans know how passionate Dead was about music, so it comes as no surprise that he was just as fond of writing letters. The early 90s were the Golden Age of tape-trading, a time when metalheads around the world began to interact with one another through their letters and dubbed copies of coveted metal albums. Ohlin was quite a prolific scribe, but until now, many of his letters had never been made public. Over the years, some have tried to bring his writings to light – efforts that never amounted to anything more than scattered scans and photos on Blogspot.

Towards the end of 2016, one of Dead's former pen pals, Old Nick, gathered up the dusty pile of letters he'd received from the cold Scandinavian shores, and decide to make them public. Not only that, but he also typed them up and printed them in chronological order, in the self-produced and aptly named purple booklet Letters from the Dead, strictly limited to 666 copies. Old Nick is from southern Italy, and first came into contact with Mayhem in 1990, back when he was running a fanzine. For all those years, he collected his letters from Dead almost religiously. But one day, he realised, that in the event of his death, no one else would be able to read them, which he thought would be a shame. "I know that I could die at any time, and I wouldn't want that to happen without giving old school fans a chance to read Dead's words," he recalls.

Photo courtesy of Old Nick

Upon publishing them, Nick piqued the interest of collectors, who contacted him to inquire about the originals – overtures he says he turned down, explaining that he wasn't ready to be parted from those letters quite yet. Letters from the Dead features all the letters Nick received between March 1990 and January 1991, aside from a little Satanist pamphlet that Ohlin himself asked him to never disclose. "I left those few pages out to honour Dead's wishes," he explains. "Even though I think that he would have never imagined that I would make a book out of his letters. All the rest is in there, though."

The "rest" is a flurry of words from which we can gain insight, however limited as it may be, into who Per Yngve Ohlin really was. "He's always tried to join a certain type of circles—Satanist ones, to be precise – even though I doubt he ever managed to do so," Nick comments. Dead deeply cared about his band and his music, something that was as well-known as his predilection for the occult. But, as Nick suggests, "These letters convey a certain coherence, an organic structure" which goes beyond his morbid Mayhem frontman persona and his self-harming stage antics. Obviously, Dead mostly wrote about music – like the bands he was in contact with, or the setbacks and mishaps affecting tours. This in itself was already interesting enough, given how legendary Mayhem's early 90s tours are to this day, but the most fascinating details gleaned from these letters are the ones that show Ohlin's experiences as a shy, pale young man emigrating to Norway.

Photo courtesy of Old Nick

"Everyone knows his history with the band," says Old Nick. "But what really stood out for me were details of his time spent with the other band members at a cabin or the many dark recesses of his everyday life." For instance, Ohlin was completely at odds with technology. "He hated PCs. He would have never even contemplated typing his letters with a keyboard, and technology in general made him uncomfortable. He just rejected it altogether, finding refuge in a world made of forests and woodlands. Most importantly, he didn't tolerate people or Norway itself, a nation he claimed had nothing to offer, was not stimulating in the slightest, and kept regurgitating wimpy musicians." (One wonders what he'd think of today's Norwegian black metal scene.)

"He even dreamed of leaving the country," Old Nick says. "Or, better yet, to flee Scandinavia altogether, to then find shelter in Transylvania, Greenland, or Iceland," – curiously a full 25 years before Icelanders did. In short, what Dead wanted was to settle down in a place where human beings were seldom seen, even less than in Norway. Moreover, he wanted to travel, writing that he wanted to visit Italy and many other places, and that he wanted to become a comic book artist. In other words, he was making plans.

Shortly thereafter, he would commit suicide. "He didn't seem like someone who wanted to kill himself, even though a near-death experience at the age of 10 definitely changed his life and the perception he had of it," adds Old Nick. "Ever since that day, he continuously tried to relive the experience. I imagine that this was the main catalyst that moved him to inflict harm upon himself. The more blood he shed, the closer he felt to this… condition, and I believe that even on the day of his death, he was trying to do something, before he completely lost control. It was some kind of magical chaos, if you will. I believe that the Romans would have called him Larvarum Plenus – 'full of ghosts."

Photo courtesy of Old Nick

To some extent, Ohlin's behavior "was fully consistent with his being extreme" – and of a man who truly believed in what he was saying and doing. Old Nick believes that Ohlin was "honestly fascinated by porphyria, the pathology traditionally associated with the birth of vampire mythology. And guess which is the country with the highest rate of people affected by it? Sweden." Moreover, Dead expressed in no uncertain terms his wish to "find a community of porphyrians in Transylvania, to settle down there and donate his own blood, as if it was a leper colony," so much so that in his writings he talked about "wanting to give himself to the vampires."

There was also room for other rather unusual interests, such as searching for poisonous flowers ("He had read of flowers that could transform people into werewolves, and even wrote me a series of scientific names"), his fantasy of meeting cannibal tribes, or the idea of recording a choir inside St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, to then mix it with a Satanic ritual, as Old Nick recalls. As always, Dead wanted everything to be real, as he was on an endless quest for authenticity and didn't simply see black metal as a means to overcome his inner demons – on the contrary, "he actually invoked and cherished them." And in all likelihood, he wouldn't be a city councillor today.

Unlike many other black metal artists, Per Yngve Ohlin never sought to vent out his anger and distress, but instead used those feelings as the pillars upon which he built his own life. He was a diligent student of everything there was to know about vampires, drafted "endless descriptions of this and that Transylvanian castle and was tremendously accurate – however accurate you could be in an era without the Internet, when knowledge of the topic usually didn't go that far beyond reading Bram Stoker."

Photo courtesy of Old Nick

There was no doubt that Old Nick was fascinated by Dead's topics of choice. Despite his off-kilter personality, Dead was known as an extremely friendly person, and that warmth was evident in his letters: He didn't sound "evil" at all, despite all the stuff about worshipping darkness and wanting to live among vampires. "We thought of going to Transylvania together," he says. "The idea was to visit those places and finally meet in person, since up to then we had only known each other through those letters. Unfortunately, those plans never came to fruition, as only a few months later he took his life. At the time I didn't fully understand this man, and the peculiarities that defined him. But as the years went by and after completely abandoning the music scene, I found myself thinking about those letters, and about the way I learned of his death." After Ohlin's death, Old Nick had received a rather apathetic letter from Euronymous (with whom he never had any prior contact), in which the Mayhem guitarist simply stated, "Pelle committed suicide, but that stamp gum you spoke of would definitely come in handy. Would you please send it to us?"

Now that Letters From the Dead is finished, Nick would like to begin a much broader bibliographical project. He intends to piece together the entire body of Ohlin's letters to metalheads spread all over the world. Many of these letters are likely lost by now, but Nick hopes that Letters from the Dead becomes a catalyst, to make sure that "whomever still has original material may come forward if inclined to do so."

After Dead's suicide, Old Nick lost interest in black metal (and never did make it to Transylvania). If you'd like to help him gather information and material for his research, he requests that you email him at ilvecchionick@gmail.com.